LAKE FOREST, Calif. (ABP) — Individual stand on moral issues — from personal character to the international arena — was the foundation of the Aug. 16 Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency.
The two-hour forum, sponsored by Southern Baptist mega-congregation Saddleback Church and held on its main campus in Orange County, Calif., allowed presumptive presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain to express moral views on political topics to a largely evangelical audience. Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren served as host.
Rather than using a debate format, Warren questioned each candidate individually in front of an audience that paid $100 per ticket to attend. Obama was first, with McCain sequestered so that he would not hear the questions. The pastor spent almost an hour with each candidate.
Although McCain appeared to be comfortable in front of an evangelical audience, Obama used biblical language twice, once referring to “the least of my brothers” (Matthew 25) and “acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
McCain seemed to generate the most audience response, particularly regarding national security, abortion and tax issues.
The candidates differed, sometimes markedly, in their responses to some questions. Regarding abortion, Obama is pro-choice, while McCain takes a pro-life stance.
Anti-abortion groups have repeatedly criticized Obama for his answer to Warren’s question about when he believed a child in the womb gained human rights. The Illinois senator responded, “…answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.”
However, he pointed out he is pro-choice because he believes women don’t “make these decisions casually” and that they seek advice within their support systems. Abortion has a “moral and ethical element” that cannot be overlooked, he said.
Obama favors limiting late-term abortions, as long as a provision is included to protect maternal health, and recognized pro-lifers’ viewpoint. “[I]f you believe that life begins at conception … and you are consistent in that belief, then I can’t argue with you on that because that is a core issue of faith for you,” he said.
McCain declared a baby is entitled to human rights “at the moment of conception” and committed to a pro-life presidency, if elected.
The Arizona senator also played up his commitment to the ongoing war in Iraq and to the war on terror. He pointed to “radical Islam extremism” and al-Qaeda as evil and pledged to “get [Osama] bin Laden and bring him to justice.”
Asked about his views on war, Obama called his early stand against the Iraq war the most difficult decision he has made — in part because of the political consequences of the at-the-time unpopular stance, and partly because of putting “kids … in harm’s way.”
But both agreed that going to war is acceptable to protect American interests and national security.
Regarding tax issues, Obama advocates a tax cut for workers that earn under $150,000 and a “modest” tax increase for those who make more than $250,000.
McCain will push for a $7,000-per-child tax credit and a $5,000 tax credit for healthcare. He focused on government spending, rather than taxation, as the issue.
McCain and Obama responded similarly on some issues. Although they didn’t use the same wording, they both characterized America’s greatest moral failure as self-centeredness.
“[W]e still don’t abide by that basic precept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me,” Obama said. “There’s a pervasive sense, I think, that this country, as wealthy and powerful as we are, still [doesn’t] spend enough time thinking about the least of us.”
McCain, in response to that question, noted, “Throughout our existence, perhaps we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self-interest, although we’ve been the best at it of everybody in the world.”
Rather than being encouraged to “go shopping or to take a trip” after the Sept. 11 bombings in the United States, people should have been told to “expand” participation in helping others, to “expand the current missions that you are doing, that you are carrying out here in America and throughout the world,” McCain added.
Both also pointed to their faith in Christ. For Obama, faith means “that Jesus Christ died for my sins, and that I am redeemed through him…. And I know that if I can get myself out of the way, that I can maybe carry out in some small way what he intends. And it means that those sins that I have on a fairly regular basis, hopefully will be washed away.”
McCain said his faith means, “I’m saved and forgiven.”
The candidates shared a similar approach to stem-cell research. Both emphasized the promise of adult stem-cell research, preferring to avoid the moral dilemma that research on embryonic stem cells poses.
Both agreed that marriage should be the union of a man and a woman and that the same-sex marriage issue should be determined at the state level. Obama believes in civil unions, he said, adding that his faith and his marriage are “strong enough that I can afford those civil rights to others.” He would not support an amendment to the federal constitution banning same-sex marriage nationwide.
Also a states-rights advocate on the issue, McCain said he would support an amendment only if the federal courts tried to enforce one state’s decision on other states as well.
McCain and Obama also agreed with Warren that stepping into regional conflict, such as in the Darfur region of Sudan, to stop genocide is acceptable. Obama emphasized seeking international support whenever possible.
Both said the United States should speak out against human-rights abuses and religious persecution. McCain said he would use the president’s “greatest asset” — the bully pulpit — as an advocate, following Ronald Reagan’s example.
While Obama favors speaking out, he said he also advocates joining international forums to work with others to point out abuse and lack of religious freedom and to “lead by example.”
Some religion-and-politics observers, such as Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, applauded Saddleback’s effort. Land believes the forum shows that evangelical influence has not declined in politics, according to a news release in Baptist Press, the SBC’s news outlet.
Others, such as the Interfaith Alliance, questioned whether the forum simply further blurred the lines between religion and politics.
Transcript of Obama and McCain appearance at Saddleback: